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Chapter 9

She did not dream.

Or, to be more specific, Orchid thought, when she awoke alone in the massive round bed, she did not dream of being stalked by a psychic vampire, even though some would say she had gone to bed with one.

She felt remarkably refreshed, given her energetic activities during the night. High overhead morning light blazed through the glass domed ceiling. It poured over the bed like warm honey-syrup and puddled around her in a delicious pool.

No nightmares last night. Not one.

The extent of her euphoria told her more clearly than anything else could just how much she had come to dread the stalking dream. For the first time she realized how it had nibbled away at the edges of her nerves during the past few days.

She wondered if great sex always had such a revitalizing affect. The only way to test the hypothesis would be to do it again, she thought. Soon.

She did not know why she had waited until last night to lose her virginity. Heaven knew that in her wild and reckless teenage years she'd done her share of climbing into backseats with the handful of young men who had the courage to date the daughter of one of Northville's most important academics. Her curiosity had been as strong as that of any other healthy adolescent.

But, perhaps owing to the fact that Northville suffered a serious shortage of interesting "bad boys" or because she was, at heart, a romantic bent on waiting for Mr. Right, she had never gone all the way.

By the time she had left Northville for the city, she was twenty years old and no longer quite so wild or reckless. She'd had goals and plans and none of the men she had met fit into them. She had male friends, but she did not have many boyfriends. None of the few men who had come into her life in the past few years had been Mr. Right.

Rafe might not be Mr. Right, she told herself, but he certainly was Mr. Exciting.

She wiggled her toes beneath the turquoise blue sheet and listened to the sounds of Rafe in the shower. The sounds of her lover, she corrected herself.

Who was registered at a marriage agency because he was desperately seeking a bride for family reasons.

That thought brought her exuberance down several notches. She sat up, pushed aside the blue-green sheets, and rose from the giant circular bed.

Halfway to the door of the bathroom she paused, turned, and glanced back over her shoulder at the rumpled bed. The old Later Expansion period piece had not been fashioned for frivolous sexual encounters, she thought. It had the weighty, portentous look of a bed that had been designed for founding dynasties. If she tried, she could almost make herself feel a little guilty for having such a good time in it last night.

Almost.

Half an hour later, showered and dressed in her jeans and T-shirt, she ran Rafe's comb through her damp hair and headed downstairs.

At the top of the elaborately carved staircase she paused, remembering how Rafe had carried her up the steps in his arms. A little thrill of pleasure shot through her.

Definitely Mr. Exciting.

The enticing aroma of freshly brewed coff-tea drew her down a hall to a small glass-walled sunroom that overlooked the garden. Rafe was seated at the table near the floor-to-ceiling windows. He had the morning edition of the New Seattle Times spread out in front of him.

He looked up when she walked into the room. His mouth curved with lazy satisfaction when he saw her.

"Good morning," he said.

"Hi." Brilliant conversation opener, she thought. Never let it be said that she, Orchid Adams, author of psychic vampire romance novels, did not know how to greet a lover first thing in the morning.

She suppressed the crazy little thrill of happiness mixed with trepidation she felt and made herself walk very casually to the table. When she got there, she was not quite certain what to do next.

What was the socially correct thing, she wondered, a little frantically. Should she just act really cool and help herself to the coff-tea? Give Rafe a brisk little peck on the cheek as if they had been lovers for ages? Make some jaunty remark about his being an early riser for a man who claimed to be a night person?

The heroines in her novels never had these problems she thought.

Rafe came to her rescue. He held out one hand. When she took it, he pulled her close against his side and urged her down for a kiss.

"You taste good," he said when she raised her head.

"I used your toothpaste," she blurted. Cool, very cool, Orchid. "But not your toothbrush. Honest. I just used my fingers." Great. She'd moved from sounding gauche to sounding like a blithering idiot.

"You can use my toothbrush anytime you want," he said very seriously.

She could not tell if he was teasing her so she decided to change the subject. She glanced down at the newspaper for inspiration and saw that he had been reading an article in the business section. The headline made her blink.

Reports of Pending Changes at Stonebraker Persist

She frowned and bent her head to read the rest of the article.

Rumors that Alfred G. Stonebraker, longtime president and C.E.O. of Stonebraker Shipping, will soon step down continue to circulate in business circles. If true, they raise troubling questions about the future of the company. Hit hard by last year's brief economic downturn, the firm compounded its problems by failing to adjust to the recent technological shifts in the shipping industry.

It is no secret that Stonebraker's Board of Directors is sharply divided on several issues. The strongest faction, led by A.G. Stonebraker's nephew and probable heir apparent, Selby Culverthorpe, is said to favor a merger with Tri-Mark Consolidated. Such a move, while potentially favorable to Stonebraker shareholders in the short term, would no doubt result in the ultimate demise of the company as an independent entity.

"How sad," Orchid said without thinking.

Rafe's brows rose quizzically. "Why do you say that?"

"Misplaced sentimentality, I suppose." She sat down and reached for the coff-tea pot. "It's none of my business. I don't have any shares in Stonebraker. And I realize that you're not involved in your family's company. But won't you find it a little depressing to stand by and watch it get swallowed up by a competitor?"

His eyes met hers with riveting intensity. "Yes."

She reached for a slice of toast. "Do you ever regret that you didn't follow in your grandfather's footsteps?"

"You seem to know a lot about my family history."

She shrugged and took a bite of the toast. "Clementine filled me in on some of the background. She said rumor has it that years ago there was a big rift between you and your grandfather."

"Ms. Malone is right. My grandfather wanted me to join the company. It was impossible."

"Of course. You could never work for anyone else. You would have to be the boss, regardless of what you did."

Rafe regarded her with an enigmatic expression. "You sound very sure of that."

"It's obvious. Probably goes with being a strat-talent." She chewed reflectively on her bite of toast. "Or maybe it just goes with being you. Did you and your grandfather ever repair the rift?"

"We've talked," Rafe said deliberately.

Orchid smiled. "That's great. I take it he's mellowed over the years?"

"You've obviously never met my grandfather. Mellow is not a word that could ever be applied to him."

"I see. Did he ever forgive you for failing to join the family firm?"

"No."

"Oh." She hesitated. "He must be terribly upset about the possibility that Stonebraker might get bought out by Tri-Mark."

"He's not happy about it."

"Does he blame you for the fact that the company is in trouble now?" she asked gently.

"Yes. Says if I'd taken over five years ago, when he originally planned to retire, Stonebraker wouldn't be having the kind of problems it's having today. He's right."

She sighed. "Only to be expected he'd try to put a guilt trip on you, I suppose. It's one of the things families do best."

"I know."

"Still, a family rift is always unfortunate. Is there anything you can do to mend the breach with your grandfather?"

"Sure." Rafe folded his arms on top of the newspaper and regarded her with gleaming eyes. "I could get myself appointed C.E.O. of Stonebraker, stop cousin Selby's attempt to take control of the company, force the board of directors to get in line, modernize the firm's way of doing business, and renegotiate contracts with our subcontractors and suppliers."

Orchid stared at him, stunned. She slowly lowered her half-eaten slice of toast. "Good lord, that's exactly what you're going to do, isn't it?"

"Yes." He picked up his mug of coff-tea. "That's what I'm going to do."

She swallowed a bite of toast. "Mind if I ask why?"

Rafe hesitated. "The company's been in the family for four generations. It supports a couple of thousand people, including most of the members of the Stonebraker clan. If cousin Selby has his way, a lot of good, hardworking people, not just my relatives, are going to lose their jobs. It's always that way in a merger."

"So it's your sense of responsibility to the family that's motivating you to save the company?"

"There are other reasons." Rafe looked out into the garden. "Stonebraker has made some real contributions in the past. Until a few years ago, it was an innovative leader in developing new technology in the shipping and transportation fields. It's spawned any number of smaller businesses."

She smiled at the pride that underscored his words. It was not just a sense of family responsibility that drove him. Rafe had a strong sense of commitment to the community, too, although he would probably be reluctant to admit it.

"There's one other reason why I'm going to save Stonebraker," he added.

"What's that?" Orchid asked.

"Cousin Selby is a two-faced, conniving little twerp whose only goal is to get rich by dismembering Stonebraker. He wants revenge on the whole Stonebraker family. Damned if I'll let the little weasel-snake get away with it."

"Why on St. Helens does he want to bring down the whole family and the company, too?"

Rafe raised one shoulder in a dismissive shrug. "It's a long story. The bottom line is that he resents the fact that the real power in the firm has always been in the hands of those who descended through my branch of the family tree."

"I see."

"It would be one thing if Selby wanted to take control of the company in order to save it. But his only goal is to destroy it." Rafe's hand flexed around the mug. "I won't let that happen."

"I understand." The crisis had aroused all of Rafe's protective instincts, she realized. He would do whatever it took to save the company and defend those who were dependent on it. Nothing would be allowed to get in his way.

"There's just one little problem," Rafe said slowly.

"Only one?"

He gave her a level look. "The Stonebraker board of directors is very conservative. There's no way I can pull off my plans unless I convince them that I intend to marry and settle down. I need to look like a good, responsible family man in their eyes."

The toast point got lodged in Orchid's throat. She swallowed heavily to force it on down. "That's why you need a wife."

"Yes."

With a monumental effort of will, she managed what she hoped was a bright smile. "Good luck."

"So far I'm not having any."

"Sorry to hear that." She cast about desperately for a change of topic. "I guess the question now, is, what happens next?"

"Yes."

"Well? You're the expert," she said.

"Me?"

She raised her eyes briefly to the ceiling. "Good thing your clients can't see you with that blank look on your face. They'd think twice about hiring you. Fortunately, I know that deep down you're a really sharp guy or I'd be having a few doubts myself."

"I'm not any more of an authority on what happens next than you are."

"I beg your pardon?"

He moved one hand in a vague gesture. "It's not like I do this all the time."

"You don't?"

"Five hells, what do you think I am?"

"A businessman who amuses himself by playing private investigator on the side?"

His gaze narrowed. "What does my business or my hobby have to do with what happens next in our relationship?"

Somewhere a jelly-ice light went off in Orchid's brain. She plunked her mug down on the table and clapped a hand over her mouth. "Oh, dear."

Rafe's jaw tightened. "What the hell does oh, dear mean in this context?"

Orchid kept her hand over her mouth in an attempt to conceal her grin. "Nothing," she mumbled.

"Damn it, Orchid"

"I wasn't talking about our relationship." She gulped down more giggles. "I was talking about our investigation. What's our next step?"

"You weren't talking about us?"

"No." She tried to look blase. "I should think you'd be relieved to hear that. I'm told men hate relationship discussions."

"I am." He frowned. "I do."

"So, about our investigation?"

He refolded the newspaper with grim, precise movements. "It's not our investigation any longer, Orchid. I thought I explained that last night."

She braced herself for the battle. "You need me. I know you want to keep me out of this, but after last night, you have to admit that you need my focus services."

"I'll admit your services were useful during that fight, but I'm accustomed to working alone. I'll get by without you."

"Rafe, you can't just cancel the contract like this."

He looked amused. "Of course I can."

"But I'm involved in this thing. I can't walk away from it."

"That's exactly what you're going to do."

"No, it is not what I'm going to do. I want to find out what happened to Theo Willis."

"You don't seem to get the point here, Orchid. I'm firing you."

She raised her chin. "If you insist, I guess there's not much I can do to stop you."

"I insist."

"Very well, then, if that's the way you feel about it." She got to her feet and picked up the empty toast dish. "I certainly can't force you to allow me to assist you."

"I'm glad you understand that." Rafe's expression gentled. "I promise I'll keep you informed of my progress."

She paused at the doorway of the breakfast room and nodded. "Thank you. That would be extremely helpful."

"Helpful?"

"Yes. I haven't had a lot of experience with this kind of thing and I'll probably need all the scraps of information you condescend to toss my way."

"Scraps?"

"If you're really nice to me, I'll return the favor. I'll let you know what I find out, too."

Rafe surged to his feet. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"I thought I'd made myself clear. I'm going to continue the investigation." She walked into the kitchen. "With or without your help."

"Come back here, damn it."

Orchid allowed the kitchen door to swing closed behind her.

It slammed open again just as she set the dishes in the sink. Rafe loomed in the entrance.

"You wouldn't dare," he said.

"You don't know me very well, do you?" She rinsed the toast dish and reached for a towel. "I've made up my mind. Obviously, I'd rather have you as a partner because you know a lot more about investigative work than I do. But since you insist on firing me, I'll just have to go it alone."

He took a step toward her. "This is blackmail."

"Well, I suppose if you want to get technical about it"

He planted his hands on his hips. "I don't like being manipulated."

"I'm negotiating, not manipulating. As a businessman, you should know the difference."

"Orchid, if you think you can get away with this"

"Don't you dare threaten me. You're the one who hired me under false pretenses." She flung the towel aside. "But I'm prepared to overlook that if you'll take me on as a full partner."

"And if I don't you'll start messing around in this thing on your own, is that it?"

"You got it." She stretched her arms out on each side and grasped the edge of the counter with both hands. "What do you say? Have we got a deal?"

Rafe did not reply. He gazed at her for a long moment.

Orchid felt the stirring of his talent. The hair on the back of her neck lifted. The hunted sensation flitted across her nerves.

"Try that again and I'll treat you to a real surprise the next time you focus with me," she said.

"What makes you think I'll ever focus with you again?"

"How can you resist? I'm the best prism you've ever had. Admit it."

He stalked across the kitchen and pinned her against the counter. "You're right." His eyes gleamed as he cradled her face between his hands. "You are the best prism I've ever had."

The blatant, predatory sexuality in his eyes sent a shiver through her.

"You were pretty good, yourself," she managed.

"I love it when you talk dirty. You know something? I think you're going to drive me crazy before this is all over."

"The feeling is mutual."

"Should be interesting, if nothing else." The hunted sensation faded but the glitter in Rafe's eyes did not. "So you want to be partners?"

"Yes."

"Okay, partner, I need a date for tomorrow night. The least you can do is help me out."

She touched the tip of her tongue to the corner of her mouth. Every instinct she possessed was on full alert. "A date?"

"For my grandfather's birthday party."

Orchid relaxed slightly. "Oh, a birthday party."

"Don't get the wrong idea here. We're not talking a cake and some jelly-ice candles. Alfred G.'s party is a very big deal. Every member of the family will be there, including cousin Selby. Also, every politician in the city-state who wants a campaign contribution will attend. As will most of Stonebraker's business associates and a sizable portion of the membership of the Founders' Club."

"And you can't get a real date for a major social event like that?"

"You're real enough." He bent his head. His mouth hovered an inch above hers.

"Okay, partner. I'll go as your date. But only if you agree to do the same favor for me."

His eyes darkened. "You need a date?"

"In five days' time. For a family wedding in Northville."

"Deal." His mouth closed over hers.

She felt the fierce, prowling, hungry passion in him. It was as strong as it had been last night, but this morning it was all mixed up with anger, seething frustration, and some other emotions she could not name.

But she knew that she had won. They were partners now. She put her arms around his neck and kissed him back, just as fiercely.

Two hours later, after taking his new partner back to her apartment, Rafe stalked back into his own house. He went immediately into his study, grabbed the phone, and punched out Hobart Batt's number.

Hobart came on the line at once, sounding anxious. "Good morning, Mr. Stonebraker. I realize you're calling to check on progress. Unfortunately I still have not been able to come up with a good match. But rest assured, I'm working on the problem."

"You told me that through the matchmakers' multiple listing service Synergistic Connections had access to the files of everyone who is currently registered in New Seattle."

"We do. Believe me, Mr. Stonebraker, I've checked the MLS listings several times. I've also thoroughly checked the computer files of our offices in New Vancouver and New Portland. I regret to inform you"

"Have you heard of a marriage agency called Affinity Associates?"

"Affinity?" A note of alarm entered Hobart's voice. "Yes. It's located here in New Seattle. But it's a very small operation, Mr. Stonebraker. If you're thinking of switching your registration to Affinity, I must warn you that, even though they have access to the MLS, they lack the resources and extensive expertise of a large agency such as ours."

"Listen, Batt"

"Given your rather extraordinary paranormal profile, I feel that we are far better equipped to handle you."

Rafe hung on to his patience with an effort. "I'm not talking about moving my account to Affinity. I want you to check with them about one of their clients, Miss Orchid Adams. She registered with Affinity a little over a year ago."

"I see. In that case, I'm sure she would be in the multiple listing service. If you're thinking that we might have somehow overlooked her as a potential match for you, I can assure you"

"She's got a very unusual paranormal profile. It's possible that Affinity did not properly assess her." Rafe paused deliberately. "Lacking the resources and expertise of a big firm such as Synergistic Connections and all, maybe they just screwed up her whole damn registration."

Hobart heaved a stoic sigh. "I'll look into it, sir."

"You do that, Batt. Or I will start thinking about switching my registration to another agency." Rafe tossed the phone back into its cradle.

He leaned back in his chair and stared at the darkened screen of his computer. The silence of the big house settled around him.

He had set out to hunt himself a wife and he had found the one he wanted. He could not believe that they were not a good match. Affinity Associates had fouled up the registration. It was the only possible answer.

In the meantime, he had other problems. He picked up the phone again and dialed Dr. Quentin Austen's office number. The receptionist sounded bored. He could hear the occasional snap of her gum.

"I'm sorry, Dr. Austen is not available. If this is an emergency, I can recommend another syn-psych doctor."

"I don't want a professional consultation. This is a business matter."

Gum snapped loudly. "What kind of business?"

"Tell Dr. Austen that it concerns one of his recent investments."

He hung up the phone before the receptionist could ask any more questions. He was satisfied that Quentin Austen would call soon. He had discovered long ago that people tended to return phone calls that involved money.

That thought reminded him that he still had a business to run. He reached out, switched on the computer, and settled down to brood over the Synergy Fund's extensive stock market portfolio.

The technology sector was doing well, but it was time to unload some of the fund's retail stocks. He could sense a coming shift in the market. The dip would be minor, but he did not want to be caught in it.


Chapter 8 | Orchid | Chapter 10



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